Testing the waters


Dear Artist,

A subscriber asked, “What about cerebral vs. expressionist painters? Is it in the genes? Is it a non-choice or can a person change? Any reason to want to change? Is there any benefit in specifically working in another way as a new and hopefully expanding experience?”


“Untitled” 1958
oil on paper
by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

These are questions that used to haunt me when I was younger. These days, being older, I’m haunted still. To put the record straight, I believe in giving in to your instincts — no matter how seemingly wild or insignificant. In my experience, days wasted on foolish projects are seldom wasted. Giving in to change and experimentation permits an artist to process the new and pass it through an evaluation filter. Whether this is further acted on or not, we learn and grow.

Regarding genes, recent research seems to show that behaviour such as fight or flight, aggression, and the tendency to religious thinking may be programmed into some DNA and not others. It’s possible that the type of art we like and do might just be hard-wired, too. If true, this could account for the religious-like fervour and argument that goes on between the various art camps. Whether we are programmed in this way or not, it’s in the creative interest of all artists to test other waters. The future is change — change of emotion, imagination, myth, dreams, style, media, education, self-education, attitude, humour and, yep, even the things we’ve come to love.


“Door to the River” 1960
oil painting by Willem de Kooning

While swimming near Ixtapa, Mexico, I ran into an octopus. At first appearing as the lower portion of a large rock, it suddenly withdrew its arms and formed its body into a formidable block that pulsated with colours rolling upward like a neon display. I almost jumped out of my skin. As I moved away, the creature, taking its primordial time, slowly morphed back into a drab grayish-brown. I had been witness to the remarkable body-art of an octopus — the way they disarm their enemies and confuse their prey. The surface of the cephalopod body is pixilated with chromatosphores that are capable of change by the simple act of will. We, too, are able to control who we are by what we think. When pressed with a new emotion, we, too, are capable of showing a new side to the world.


“Untitled” 1961
oil painting by Willem de Kooning

Best regards,


PS: “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge,
That myth is more potent than history,
That dreams are more powerful than facts,
That hope always triumphs over experience,
That laughter is the cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.” (Robert Fulghum)

Esoterica: Anyone who has ever logged onto an online chat-room will be familiar with the word ‘avatar.’ In the cyber-world, avatars are those little cartoony, often cute, alter-ego images that tell others who they’re talking to. In cyberspace, as in real space, somebody by the name of Lillian may be known as Wonder-girl. In Hindu mythology, an avatar is another incarnation. The octopus I mentioned was its own avatar. The avatar re-jigs the way we are. The avatar is another side of the personality.

This letter was originally published as “Testing the waters” on April 4, 2006.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The artist fills space with an attitude. The attitude never comes from himself alone.” (Willem de Kooning)



    • “Laughter is the cure for grief.”
      It is for me. In my life I experience a rolling grief in which grief cycles follow and overlap those losses before and after.
      I have allowed this confusing welter of grief to keep me from painting for a year. We moved from upper Midwest to the Southwest. As I try to recover I often think that I should just break out in a new painting direction. Bold colors, shapes and little detail. Glad I read your father’s note.

      • Chris Everest on

        My grief stays with me… I can draw but so far I cannot use colour… although I feel it is getting nearer

  1. This letter brought me to tears. My recent trip to Peru was enlightening in so many ways. My innate fear of such a remote area of the world were indeed overcome. Could intense sunlight and inherited DNA be what makes these Andean people have such a talent with color? Their abilities are everywhere, even in the poorest villages. Religion is an emotional, deeply sacred thing to them. Although they are Catholic they still hold ancient manifestations with idols and rituals from times long before the Spanish arrived. Round beautiful faces smile easily, and the women wear hats and a thick layer of skirts. When the one underneath gets dirty, she removes and cleans it, and puts it on top of the others. I was amazed when a native women told me that the babies born in the highlands are not allowed to see the sun for the first 5 months of life, she opened the colorful wrap on her back and nestled in the bottom of it was her beautiful sleeping infant.
    Painting in the highlands was a challenge, but I managed to do 2 plein air paintings while there. The city of Cusco is a bustling village sadly polluted with old buses spewing toxic gases. On a day of a festival I sat on a street and set up. I worked quickly, as I always do, trying to ignore the crowd that had formed around me. It was the most people I have ever had surrounding me. I looked around once or twice to smile at them and they would smile wide and nod affirmatively most of them staying to watch me the entire time. Their kind encouragement kept me going and gave me an incredible rush of excitement. Another plein air painting was completed on the street from the entrance to the hotel I was staying. A native woman was setting up her daily meal to be served to passersby’s in a doorway on a busy Cusco street. I was amazed when a crowd soon formed and she was done done for the day. I was lucky to capture her. A moment in time, in a changing world. Like Robert says, The future is change — change of emotion, imagination, myth, dreams, style, media, education, self-education, attitude, humour and, yep, even the things we’ve come to love.

    • My paintings of Peru have been posted to my Plein Air paintings on my website, they are the first two that pop up on there. I love traveling and if I don’t write about my thoughts and most interesting remembrances as soon as I return I forget them, thank you for letting me know you read them Camille Bodey.

  2. “When pressed with a new emotion, we, too, are capable of showing a new side to the world.” These days, I’m afraid, too many people are showing their emotions and exhibiting the dark side of their nature. It is becoming a sad world…

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Featured Workshop

Stalking Caribou With a Paintbrush
August 25, 2018 to August 31, 2018


Capture on canvas the vibrant autumn reds, mauves, greens and golds of the Arctic tundra. Distractions: Caribou migrating south from their summer feeding grounds to their winter shelter; magical nightly displays of northern lights; world-class fishing for Arctic char or grayling; hiking or boat trips to see ancient Inuit sites; or, after an excellent dinner, hear of the exploits of the owners during their adventures to the North & South Poles. An experience like no other!

Not a workshop but rather a group paint out under the guidance of professional oil painter and textile designer Mette Baker (http://mettebaker.com/). Mette has been painting at Arctic Haven, a wilderness lodge in the southwest corner of Nunavut, for the past two years. Her husband, former Canadian Ambassador and consultant Brian Baker, has been leading groups to Greenland and Northern Canada for many years.

For more details about Arctic Haven, see website: https://www.arctichaven.ca/

For information about the trip generally, contact Brian brian@businessbeyond.ca


Featured Artist

Painting is my passion and joy.  My process is intuitive, though informed by good composition and design principles.  I paint what I remember, or think about, or feel, or just what comes off my hands to the brush to the canvas.  Texture and color are of primary importance to me.  I typically choose my support, texture it, select my palette, and go.  There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching paint run and move.  I love the surprises. I experiment and learn constantly.  It is a remarkable journey.  One I am pleased to share with you.


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